Author Topic: I just talked with two women who saw a Cougar  (Read 1954 times)

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Offline TheOldBuzzard

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I just talked with two women who saw a Cougar
« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2012, 06:35:30 AM »
“I just talked with two women who saw a Cougar,” says my mate, Lety. She has my undivided attention. The last Cougar in the state had been shot in 1908 and since then there have been sporadic, unconfirmed reports of Cougar sightings. Those which could be traced usually turned out to be light-colored Dogs, Bobcat s or mangy Coyotes. Night sightings based on the color of eye shine (the reflected light from an animal’s eye) have been even less reliable, because color can vary with angle, source and intensity of light, and with the age of the animal. Even considering that, I couldn't help but be interested in a couple of sighting hot spots being recently reported in the state. Consistent reports have been coming in from a variety of people, and one of these areas is within thirty miles of us.
 I have no doubt that there will soon be a confirmed Cougar sighting in Wisconsin, as in neighboring states, because Cougars are dispersing eastward from healthy population centers in Colorado and the Black Hills. And yet I have learned from my training in native ways to "Be as a question" -- to consider all of the possible options, and to seek the greater truth behind what I am given. On this mid-September Saturday afternoon in 2006, I would love to believe that these women had actually seen a Cougar on the logging road just a quarter mile from where we are standing, as only four years ago this road had given us the first Wolf tracks -- the first proof that Wolves had returned to the Headwaters Wilderness after a 75-year absence. “What was the story the women told you?” I ask Woman-of-the-Four-Colors. "I was just at the boat landing [at the north end of our wilderness lake] before I came to camp to meet you, and the women pulled in and said they were out driving around looking for mushrooms. They said that a quarter mile back on the road, not far in front of them this big, tawny colored animal with a long tail just stepped out onto the road.” “Did you ask if it might have been a Dog or a Coyote?” “They were certain it was a Cougar; they said it was much bigger than a Dog. It was long and lanky, with a small Cat-like head.” Sounds like a Cougar. At the same time I recall how my imagination had helped to create something I wanted to be out of something that perhaps wasn’t quite that. I also know the power of suggestion: when one person reports seeing something frightening in the shadows, any number of people are sure to be seeing the same thing.
 “Did you get their names and addresses?" I ask. "I’d like to interview them further, to get the exact location and eliminate the possibility that they had seen another animal.” “Ah, I wish I had, it didn’t occur to me. They did say they lived on Moccasin Lake and the younger woman was Lisa, probably in her fifties. The other one’s name was Madeline. She had a strong accent and was probably in her seventies or eighties.” “Did you get their license number?” “No, but I remember the vehicle. It was very distinctive—one of the small Jeep-type vehicles, royal blue.” “That should be enough to find them,” I reply. “This is a small community and there aren’t that many cottages on the lake.” “Don’t you want to go and look for the track?” my mate asks. “Good idea,” I reply. “The two women will more likely be home later anyway.” An early morning rain softened the sand and the overcast kept it damp -- perfect conditions for holding a track. And so few vehicles come down the road that tracks can remain visible for days. However I wonder to myself what finding a Cougar track would prove. The official position of the state DNR and U.S. Forest Service is that there is no wild Cougar population in Wisconsin, and that any confirmed sightings or tracks are from pets that have been released because they grew too big and rambunctious for their owners. Perhaps. And yet I ask, “What does it matter?” Anyone who has let an inside-raised Housecat go outdoors knows that it is only a matter of days before she is trouncing on mice and swatting birds out of the air with the best of them. Cats are Cats; they are all essentially the same. Sure, they vary in size and color, and yet, they all have only one passion -- to hunt. And they eat only one thing -- meat. Virtually everything a Cat does is related to the hunt. The first interactions of kittens are to pounce on one another, as soon as they are able they attack their mother’s twitching tail, and any play that even the tamest domestic Housecat engages in with Humans is pawing, batting, chasing or wrestling with something. You can bet that if a Cat dreams of anything, it is hunting. This is because the Cat evolved as a pure carnivore. She has no molars for chewing -- only teeth for grasping and slicing meat. A Cat’s only divergence from pure meat is a few blades of grass now and then to scour her gut. And it is not just meat she prefers, but live meat. Unlike her cousin the canine, she will not normally consume carrion. And unlike a canine, she will hunt and hunt even if she is well fed. Hunting is not only second nature to a Cat; it is her nature. A Cougar, even if caged from birth, could easily survive and naturalize herself if she were released as an adult. So wildlife experts' claims that released pets do not constitute viable breeding populations, hold no water to Cats.
 Nor to me. Such a specialized diet could be a liability, and yet Cougar has the most extensive range of any large animal in the Americas -- coast to coast and from northern British Columbia to Tierra del Fuego. Because meat is highly nutritious, rich in minerals, and easy to digest, a carnivore needs to eat only occasionally; whereas herbivores, who must sustain themselves on hard-to-digest, nutrition and mineral-poor plants, need to spend a good share of their time eating. So what will finding a Cougar track prove? For me it would be cause for celebration. The Cougar has been a part of the Northwoods community for eons, just as much as has Moose and Beaver, Wolf and Deer. Cougar is designed to hunt and eat Deer, and will live on Deer almost exclusively if they are available. Just as much, Deer need Cougar, to weed out their sick, old, and often overabundant young. The whole Forest benefits: Plants are not overgrazed, scavengers from Weasel to Wolverine and Raven to Bear have carcasses to scour, and there’s enough forage to go around for other browsers such as Moose and Elk. Even Grouse and Beaver benefit when young Aspen, their favorite food source, is not decimated by a starving Deer population.
 To me, the scream of Cougar is as much a part of the Northwoods as is the cry of Loon and the howl of Wolf. It is not Cougar’s fault that she has left, and her Woodland relations -- including me -- miss her dearly. So as soon as it is clear to me that she has returned to us, I will put on a Welcoming Feast in her honor. There were once three drawbacks to Cougar’s return: suitable habitat (the Northwoods was leveled by loggers), a food base (Deer were virtually eliminated by market hunters and poachers), and our fear and hatred of large predators. The Forests have regrown and the Deer population has rebounded to levels the Northwoods has probably never seen; however, negative attitudes toward large predators linger as unyielding relics of a bygone era. Granted, there has been much change in terms of the understanding and appreciation of the vital roles that predators play, and yet that change has only affected a segment of the population. There are still many who shoot predators on sight, or who will not swerve when one appears in the beam of their headlights. Here’s where our state and federal wildlife agencies come to play. They are entrusted with the welfare of our native plants and animals, and they do a remarkable job. Were it not for them, the Eagle (whose kind help keep Fish from overpopulating) would not have been there on that overhanging branch to swoop down in front of me, and the pack of Wolves would not have been there to kill the starving doe I came across last winter. These organizations, because they are bureaucracies, are slow to change. This can get in the way when fast action is needed. At other times, such as when it comes to changing management policies, their insistence on gathering and assessing solid data before any policy change is considered, is acting responsibly both to the wildlife and the public. If I want Cougar to be recognized as a resident species, which will gain her protection and management under the Endangered Species Act, I need to present them with what fits their definition of quantifiable, verifiable data. The call of a Cougar in the night will not do unless I have it witnessed, recorded, and voice analyzed. A photograph will do no better unless it be part of a photographic series which substantiates location. Tracks and track molds are least likely to be considered, because tracks are easy to fake and track molds are hard to verify for location. And because few agency personnel have tracking expertise.
 In fact, many believe Cougar leaves no track. For most people this is the practical truth (unless, of course, one were to step in mud or wet sand). Scat containing hair from self grooming is considered solid evidence, and DNA confirmation is the most reliable and accepted proof short of a carcass or live trapped animal. Scat is the easiest-to-get source of DNA, although not all scat yields Cougar DNA, because so few cells slough off of the intestinal wall. I favor DNA testing because I believe it will eventually put to rest the myth held by many wildlife professionals that Northwoods Cougars are released pets originating in Central and South America -- a different subspecies than our native animals, and therefore not able to garner protection under the Endangered Species Act. Besides dispersal from populations in the West and North (which accounts mainly for males, as females generally stick close to home), our Cougars are probably arriving courtesy of private groups who illegally trap them out West (confidential sources tell me these Cats are being released in upper Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota). And then there is the political situation. Even though the environmental agencies profess objectivity, and even though their middle and lower echelon employees are largely dedicated professionals, these agencies are run by political appointees and their funding is controlled by politically manipulated purse strings. “Do you want to see where the Cat crossed the road?” asks my obviously-excited mate. “Let’s do it,” I reply.
 To be sure we catch the track, we start a generous quarter mile down the road, with each of us taking a side and working our way slowly up to the boat landing. The road is hard packed sand and stone; only its very edges are soft enough to register an easy-to-read track. In order to maintain perspective and catch sign of movement rather than a single track -- a more realistic possibility considering conditions -- we stay a few feet off of the road. In places where the brush is heavy beside the road, we walk in fresh tire tracks. “We’re looking for a needle in a haystack,” I say after we've covered about half of the distance. We are both finding a lot of sign and we are undoubtedly missing more than we are seeing. On top of that, a Cougar has a long stride, so she could easily have stepped over the narrow band at road’s edge where her track would most clearly register. “Something else is troubling me,” I add. “This doesn’t feel like a Cougar corridor. There’s not the proper cover, and if the Cougar were heading from east to west, as the women stated, she would run smack-dab into the lake. I wonder if we ought to be searching in the opposite direction, where there’s more favorable Cougar habitat.” “And who knows what ‘a quarter mile’ means to someone,” added my mate. "Maybe the Cat crossed further down the road than where we started." It starts to drizzle and we are six miles from home, so we decide to hop on our bikes and keep our eyes open as we head down the road. We go about a mile and come to the bottom of a small hill covered with densely growing young conifers and hazelnut brush that serve as a transitional area between upland hardwoods and lowland spruce-cedar swamp. “Now this is where I’d be traveling if I were a Cougar,” I say to my companion. “It feels like I belong when I envision being a Cougar and coming through the thicket.” Just then I flash on a dream I had last night: Cougar came to me, clearly and with quiet determination. I felt her sense of purpose, and yet she was not forceful. She just was -- clearly centered within herself and moving as a shadow of a shadow. At the same time I see ahead of us the tracks of a vehicle that pulled slowly off to the side of the road and stopped. “Notice how they pulled off to the right, as though they were watching something off to the left,” I comment. The tire tracks match the description of the vehicle the two women were driving. I become the women and look off the left. There is the Cat just off the road, looking back at me. I then become the Cat and move back in time… approaching the road on my usual trail…stopping beside the big pine to survey the open road before stepping out… hearing a vehicle coming slowly...no cause for alarm… stepping out onto the road and looking to the left to reassure myself that the vehicle is no threat, and then angling off to the right to skirt an open wetland on the other side of the road. Once safely across the road and into cover, I turn around and look back at the vehicle that has stopped just before the Pine where I stepped out on the road. I return to my Human identity and look down at where I saw myself, the Cat, step down onto the road. There is s a track. My heart stops as I am overwhelmed with the profoundness of the moment: My dream. The mystique. The controversy. My first Cougar track. Lety, who is a couple of bike lengths behind me on the other side of the road, looks down at the same time as me and her gaze rests upon a track. “Tamarack, what does this look like to you?” she calls out. I work to contain my excitement so that I can partake in her discovery before bringing her into mine. At the same time, I realize that her discovery is mine, and vice versa. We have gotten accustomed to the synchronicity in our lives, knowing that in a real sense, we are one. That awareness helps me see that together we have probably come across the first and last track of the Cat crossing the road. My mate's track is deep and clear, even though it is mostly filled with fluffed-up sandy backwash from the Cat giving her paw a flip when she lifted it. We then go to look at my track, taking a wide berth to avoid the line between the two so that we do not trample any other tracks. I need to point my track out to her, because it is on hard-pack and noticeable only because of the rearrangement of Pine needles. We spend more time at each track and then back up to gain perspective. The tracks between the two, even harder to see than mine, start to appear.
 We mark the tracks and continue on our way home. A short way down the road my mate asks me how certain I am that the tracks are Cougar’s. “About 80%” I reply. “As you know, I’m never certain of anything -- it closes me off to other possibilities. If other sign, or other knowledgeable people confirm what we think we have seen, my degree of certainty will rise. Of course, the reverse could happen also.” A little further down the road, we meet Fritz, my assistant, on his way to camp. “What’ve you been up to?” he asks. My mate and I look at each other and, with a slight nod and a faint smirk, agree that we are going to have a little fun with Fritz. “Oh, we’ve been noticing all the tracks along the road,” I respond. “We saw a lot of Deer, a few Fishers, a couple of Bears, a Cougar, Coyotes…” I am as nonchalant as possible, just matter-of-factly listing Cougar with the others. Fritz calls my bluff and responds with a deadpan look, to cover for himself just in case I am pulling his leg. My mate and I can't keep straight faces anymore, so we break out in smiles and tell him all about our tracking adventure. “Can I see the tracks?” he asks. He too has trouble seeing mine, even though it is marked with a stick pointing right to it. “How about asking Tony to come and check the tracks?” I suggest to Fritz. “I was thinking the same thing,” he responded. Tony Kemnitz, a retired crime investigator who learned tracking as a young teenager by having to hunt to feed his family, is one of the top man and animal trackers in the Midwest. “Tony thought it was a female or maybe an adolescent male around ninety pounds,” says Fritz after he returns from going to the track site with Tony. “He showed me where the Cat came down through the Firs, sat beside the tree next to the road, and then stepped out. He even saw the tracks on the hard-pack in the middle of the road, and where the Cat turned to look back at the vehicle after crossing the road, and then continued on around the right side of the clearing. I couldn’t see the trail at first, but with some guidance from him, I found it and followed it into the woods on my own.” “Tony told me that Cougars move through Grass and brush like a Fish through water,” says Fritz, “which is why they can be so hard to track. After they pass through, the Grass closes in behind them, as though they were never there.” Tony is such an accomplished tracker that he can find, identify, and age, the tire tracks of a vehicle that has pulled out on a main road. And he has a reputation for finding wounded Deer that hunters have lost. Now it is obvious to me that he also knows Cougars. Although fitting in the same ecological niche as Wolf, Cougar is as different from Wolf as night is from day. Cougar moves like liquid rubber, slinky and sinewy; whereas Wolf is more like a taut bow, stiff and springy. Cougar flows over the landscape like water, and a Wolf flies over it like an arrow.
 Cougar is not a runner; she pads gingerly over the terrain, carefully picking each step. For this reason her range is often small, extending only as far as needed to find Deer. Wolf, on the other hand, has a large territory, which needs to be maintained by patrolling and marking, in order to assure an adequate food base for the pack. A Wolf’s loping gate can carry him all day without tiring. With some effort, Wolf can pull himself over an eight-foot high obstacle, whereas you’d have to add another ten feet to that to challenge Cougar. She could clear even more than that on a horizontal leap -- and this is from an animal roughly the size of a human: females run from 90 to 120 pounds, and males from 140 to 200. Cougar has another unique feature -- a muscular penis. No, not for pleasing his mate, but to spray the undersides of leaves and branches, where his scent will be protected from the elements. After hearing Fritz and Tony’s story, I’m left with a feeling of deep kinship with Tony, as I know so few of the Human kind who can hear the Song of the Track. This was only the second Cougar Tony tracked, and yet he knew, just as I did. An awesome track with toes spread to nearly five inches was only incidental to what we saw there. No words could convey the impressions and images painted by the ancient memories of our tracking ancestors that we carry within us. There is no story we could tell that would capture how, by becoming the Housecat we watched crossing a living room floor, we prepared ourselves for seeing a Cougar cross a road long after she had passed. * * * * * * * * It is six days later and Fritz is telling me that Jim, one of the students in our year-long wilderness living course, just came across some odd-looking scat beside a road about a mile from where we sighted the Cougar. “Let’s go,” I say, and in a few minutes Fritz, Hasan (another Teaching Drum staff person and avid tracker), and I, are scouring the side of the road for scat. “Didn’t Jim say it was just west of the snowmobile crossing?” Hasan asks Fritz when we come up empty-handed after searching at least a hundred paces beyond where the scat was supposed to have been. Fritz nods in the affirmative, and I flash back on an afternoon several days ago when the “quarter mile down the road” Cougar crossing turned out to be a mile. I trot down the road, which crosses a narrow bog, and on the other side of the bog where the road rises to cut through the brushy edge -- right were I would be crossing the road if I were a Cougar -- I find the scat.
 I wave my arms and my comrades come running down to join me. “What do you think?” I ask as they pull up beside me. “It definitely has the Tootsie Roll look,” responds Hasan. He’s referring the characteristic lumpiness that makes Feline scat look like it is given periodic squeezes on its way out. This is opposed to Canine scat, which is more in the form of a smooth tube. The scat is about the diameter of a dime, which fits Tony's appraisal of the Cat being a female or immature male. The plug (the first piece of scat to come out) is in the typical cone shape, and it, along with the first couple of inches that followed, is dark, dry and compressed, which indicates it sat in the colon for a while and dehydrated. The rest of the scat is a light smoky brown color and soft, which means that it is the result of a recent meal. Cat scat is usually more consistent looking than this one, because the short, simple, digestive system of a pure carnivore passes food quickly through the body. Along with its Tootsie Roll look, this scat was deposited in a scrape. Some Cats cover their scat better than others; however, virtually all of them make a fresh scrape for their scat. A canine will often make a “scrape;” however, he does it by kicking his back feet after he has deposited his scat. Occasionally he will end up tossing his scat around in the process, but usually the scrapes are some distance from the scat. Another difference that helps distinguish Canine from Feline scat at a glance is that Canines, because they use scat to mark their territories, will often deposit scat repeatedly in the same place, so there ends up being an accumulation of scat of varying ages. Cats rely on urine to mark their territories, in part because their nutrient-rich scat is a popular menu item for many creatures. Anyone who’s had Cats and Dogs together knows how much Dogs like visiting the litter box. It turns out that Cougar scat is also well liked by certain Cougar researchers. One such individual was contacted a couple of times by a colleague, because he and I wanted to offer our services for winter Cougar tracking surveys. I saw them as a way to keep abreast of when and where Cougar sign was being found, so I could go there and perhaps speak with Cougar. My colleague got no reply. He just e-mailed photos of the scat we found to this researcher, and his reply was instantaneous: There is good probability the scat is Cougar, and could we please send him a piece for DNA analysis. ************* A week passes and it appears this tracking story has just begun.
 A second chapter unfolds as Lety tells me that at the Ojibwe language class she attends on a local reservation, they are learning the Native names of the local animals. "Most of the students are just memorizing names," my mate tells me, "because they no longer know the animals." Friend Nick Vander Puy echoes the spirit of her words when he tells me what Bawd-way-wi-dun* said when Nick asked him about the significance of the return of Cougar, (whom the Ojibwe call Mishibizhiw). Bawd-way-wi-dun responded that it is a sign of the fulfillment of a prophecy: When Mishibizhiw returns from the North, it will herald the coming of a new people to be Earth Mother's guardians. *(Edward Benton-Banai, Ojibwe and Grand Chief of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society) Again, a chill crawls up my spine: I know the prophecy, I know my life's calling, and I know why Cougar came to me in dreamtime. And now I hear all these voices as one -- one guiding voice. Chi Migwetch (Much gratitude) to both my mate and my friend for helping me listen. The Headwaters Wilderness is no longer the same since Brother Wolf and I have been joined by a sister predator. The dynamic of the Forest has changed -- I feel a new energy wherever I go. When I walk under a large overhanging branch I look up to see if a large Cat might be perched. When I follow a Deer trail I realize that I may be stepping in the footprints of my new sister. Being a natural loner, she probably doesn't mind that she has the Wilderness to herself. Perhaps next spring she will have cubs, and maybe she will bring me to them so that I can meet them. If I am so blessed, I will write another chapter to this story. Two weeks later “There’s a Deer kill just off of the trail in the transition area on this side of the maples,” says Duke to Marty, “and it looks strange—no blood, and the kill is partly covered with debris.” A “Really!” expression crosses Marty’s face.
 They had both just arrived at our primitive camp to work on a lodge, and on the way in Duke had cut off the trail to relieve himself. Fritz arrived a bit later. Duke informed him of what he saw. There were seven students there working on the lodge also, and everyone wanted to go and see the kill site. “Let’s wait until I get back,” suggests Fritz. “I’m going to check in with Tamarack about the kill, and get my camera, so we can get pictures before the site is disturbed.” Lety and I, on our way out to camp, meet Fritz on the road, much like a few weeks ago on the day this saga began, only this time Fritz has a story for us. And of course, he starts it as deadpan as possible, to repay me for doing it to him. As he relays what Duke had told him, I feel a smallness creep over me. Not the smallness of insignificance, but of realizing that I am not the master of my life. It feel as though I am walking in shadows: the shadow of a long-ago unknown ancestor, the shadows of old stories I’ve heard, the shadow of a Cat. I am able to watch myself as a movement within the greater movement, as though I am part of some overriding plan, which leaves me without an identity or purpose of my own. While Fritz goes for his camera, Lety and I stalk in to look the site over in advance of the others, so we can pick up on any sign that might be disturbed by the group, and so that we could figure out how to guide them into the site with the least disruption. We approach from the north, so we can more easily detect ground disturbance by their shadows, which can be quite visible at this time of the year when the sun that sits so low in the southern sky. We circle the entire site, in our customary sun-wise direction, maintaining a radius of about twenty paces from the kill. Upon finishing the circle, we have a fairly good idea as to who had come and gone from the site, and when. Taking advantage of a fallen tree as a pathway to the kill, we are able to get up close and observe without disturbing any ground sign. We see it is a typical ambush-neck choke Cougar kill. When Fritz returns, I say to the group, "The Cat’s presence is a gift. There may be a reason she has chosen to join us, and we can honor that by giving her, her peace, so that she feels welcome here. Cats usually stay very close to their kills, and it looks as though she bounded off when Duke came into the area. Perhaps we can all go take a look at the kill site in a few days." Everybody agrees. “How did it feel to come upon the site?” I ask Duke. “I was excited and fearful at the same time,” he responds. “I didn’t know whether the killer was still hanging around or not.”
 Many people feel as Duke did around a large Cat kill. Wolves hunt in packs and they tear at an animal to bring him down and kill him. There’s usually a chase so there could be a lot of track and torn up ground around the kill. Because the sign is so conspicuous, the story of what happened is easy to read. Not so with a Cougar kill. She, like all other Cats but Lions, is a solo hunter, having no one but herself to rely on. Chasing is not a good strategy for her, because she has no one to relieve her when she tires, nor is there a team to spread out and intercept the zigzagging prey animal trying to escape. Even if she were to hunt cooperatively with other Cougars, she and her team could not maintain a chase, because they are not designed to run any distance. Instead, she has become a master of the pounce. She will lie in wait and, at just the opportune instant, will spring forward with the aid of powerful oversized back legs and a long, limber body that coils and uncoils like a spring. In one or maybe two bounds she is up on the back of the animal and clamping her short, vice-like jaws around his throat, causing him to suffocate. It is a very clean kill, often with no visible blood, little sign of a struggle, and of course no sign of a chase. This could prove unnerving to a person who chances upon the kill and can’t figure out right away what happened. If the Cat is not yet ready to eat, or if she has been spooked off of the kill before being able to dig in, the kill site can look all the more mysterious. Cap that with the fact that Cougars, like most Cats, have the very un-Doglike trait of sitting tight—often very close by, as long as they think they are not being seen, and you can see why Duke felt fear around the site. Cougars are so trusting of their ability to remain camouflaged that sometimes a person can study one quite closely and even take pictures and still the Cat will not bolt. Three days later, Lety guides the group into the site by following the route she and I had initially taken. We all wolf-walk (step in the same footprint of the one before us), so that we cause minimal disturbance. Each person takes a turn walking down the log to get a closer view of the actual kill. “Be silent and stealthy, as though you are stalking in,” I suggest, "and stay in a state of broad awareness, so that you’re able to take in the whole picture without getting lost in the details. There will be time for that later.” “What did you see, smell, and feel?” I ask as we all sit in a circle a short distance from the site. “It’s obvious there was a scuffle,” says Barb, “but I don’t see any mark on the Deer. It looks like he just fell over.” “Did anyone notice anything?” I ask. “All I saw was some matted hair around the throat,” responds Gary.
 "And his rear end was chewed into, but not much. "That's fresh," adds Lety, "the other day nothing was eaten." “So how was the Deer killed?” asks Mathew. “I think Gary answered that,” answers Fritz. “Can you see why Duke felt edgy when he came upon the kill?” I ask. Several people nod. “What kind of sign did you notice around the kill?” I ask. “Did you see the hair on the other side of the log?" asks Kim of the group. “There wasn’t much,” responds Jim, “and a couple of those tufts didn’t look like Deer hair.” “Yeah,” adds Bart, "it was lighter colored and finer. What do you think it was, Tamarack?” “We’re going to send a sample to a lab to be analyzed,” I respond. “It looks like whatever killed that Deer didn’t leave any tracks,” states Jim. “How can that be?” “Any ideas?” I ask the group. “Well, if it was a Cat,” says Dominique, “they have padded feet with retractable claws, so she could probably walk over these leaves and needles without making much disturbance.” “But what about the fight?” counters Barb. Nobody has an answer for that one, and I let it sit. There is that and much more for them to discover here, and learning the process of discovery is much more important to them than the answers themselves. If I would give them all the answers, they would walk away without the foggiest idea as to how to find the answers themselves. And they were probably not come to realize how much they already know. By my asking questions and redirecting their own questions back to the group, they discover how much they know collectively. This is Native clan knowledge at work: each individual carries some information which when pooled together with what others know, can make a believer in the power of the circle out of even the staunchest individualist. There is another important facet of this kill--and all kills--I would like to explore, which I open with “Why here—why did the Cat choose to ambush a Deer here?” There is a long silence as they wrack their brains for an explanation. During that time I reflect on how, unlike members of the Dog family, who cover a wide territory when hunting, Cougars lie in ambush, so they need to envision where their prey is going to be and when. This takes a brilliance dogs don’t have, and this is the core of the reason Cats are their own animal, even the domestic Housecat, as affectionate as she might be, still listens to a voice that is very much her own—a voice that often puts her at odds with her owner. Cats are the epitome of self-reliance and independent thinking. They are superbly attuned to their environment, knowing their place and exactly how to function within it. With my question I asked the Seekers to become the Cat—to perceive what she did in choosing to lie in wait at this particular spot. I see they need to approach the question in smaller pieces, so I ask, “Did anyone see the scat that we almost stepped on while we were circling the kill?” Two people nod. “How about the munched off sedge and raspberry canes?”
 Nobody responds. “Ah,” says Barb, in her thick Swedish accent, “there’s food here for the Deer and they come here to eat, and the Cat knows that.” “What kind of scat was it?” I ask “and how old was it?” The Seekers do not have enough experience to answer that question, so I ask Fritz, my assistant, to take it. “It’s Deer scat, probably from this morning, judging by how shiny it is. The pellets are firm and well shaped, which means they’re high in fiber. The Deer have switched from their green-season diet of succulent plants to tough grasses, twigs and buds. The raspberry clippings look pretty fresh too, like they could be from early this morning.” “Yes, food is one reason they’re here,” I state, “but there’s food elsewhere also. There are a couple of other very important reasons for Deer traffic through this area.” “Well, it’s different,” Dominique tentatively begins, “to the east of us it's Maple forest, very open underneath; and to the west it’s a Pine forest, which is pretty open also, but right here it’s thick with a lot of young Fir and Hazelnut.” “That’s what attracts them here,” I reply, “but why?” “Because they have shelter?” offers Barb. “A very important consideration for a prey animal,” I reply. “This is a zone where two habitats meet. It’s commonly referred to as edge, because that’s just what it is--the edge of a woods, meadow, lake, marsh, or whatever. The habitat overlap usually makes it a very fertile area, providing food, shelter and nesting habitat for the surrounding animals." "There’s yet another reason why animals are found in edge habitats," I continue, " this one in particular. You’ve been here for a half turn-of-the-seasons now and know the region quite well; what have you noticed that might draw animals to this particular edge?” None of the Seekers has an idea. Fritz and the others who have more woods experience know that I prefer having them not speak, so the Seekers will be challenged to find their own answers in their own time and way, so that it is truly their knowledge rather than something they know and repeat because someone else told them. Typically I would send them out with this question as a challenge; however, this time I want them to have a full picture of the drama that occurred here this morning, along with the events that led up to it and the place of this event in the greater scheme of things. I ask Fritz if he might be able to shed some light on the question. “This edge is a natural corridor for the Deer traveling back and forth from the lake shore just north of us to the other side of the big bog to the south,” he said. “They travel it so much that that you’ll see where they've worn in trails in places.”
 “There’s also track here that’s much harder to see than Deer track," I add, "so you may not have noticed it. For example, a Cougar walked through here heading south, and passed just beside the Deer scat we were just talking about, and there’s other visible Cougar track and sign around the kill site.” “Can you show us some? They ask. Tony Kemnitz was out earlier in the day visiting the kill site and he showed Fritz two trees that the Cougar marked by rearing up and raking them with her claws. Fritz pointed the trees out to the group. The scratches were not very remarkable for a Cat with razor-sharp claws, a paw that made massive four and a half inch wide tracks on the road, and the strength to bring down a prime yearling buck. This Cat obviously made a half-hearted attempt at marking the area. Wanting to leave enough mystery to keep the Seekers’ curiosity up, I did not mention that Cougars do not like marking conifers—the dominant tree in the area—because their claws would end up coated with irritating pitch. Nor did I speculate that the Cat might be an immature, not yet having the full-blown hormonal-driven desire to mark territory. That evening Fritz, Lety and I look more closely at the hair samples we collected at the site for lab identification. “That’s Bobcat ,” was my instant reaction. The fur had sooty overtones -- not the clear sandy color of a typical Cougar. “Be as a question,” I tell myself, and it helps right away. I go over the story of the kill and two things stand out: the tree scrapes and the dead Deer. Perhaps the scrapes appeared half-hearted because they were done by a considerably smaller and less robust animal than a Cougar, say a Bobcat . However, the odds of a Bobcat killing--or even trying to kill--a Deer in his adolescent prime, without being either injured or bogged down in snow, are close to nil. Aha--an immature Cougar! That could explain both the wimpy tree markings and the Bobcat -looking fur, because a young Cougar has Bobcat -like markings and retains them until she is about six months of age, and sometimes up to a year. Thanks to remembering to be as a question, I now have a possibility that fits every clue. I’m not at all surprised that the song of an adolescent Cougar’s track could be so hard for me to hear. After all, some people have mistaken her call for that of a chirping bird. And it’s not just adolescents: the incessant yowl of a female in heat falls somewhere between a hiss and a hoarse scream, which would leave most people scratching their heads--except those who have been around a female Housecat in heat. First Snow A week later and I am watching big, cottony puffs of snow drift on a gentle easterly breeze and feeling their fresh ting as they melt on my cheeks -- what a poetic way for The Mother’s comforting, protective, white blanket to be laid down upon us.
 The next morning the snow is settled and the sun rises bright and inviting. Fritz and I had planned on going out to camp to spend some time with the Seekers, so I ask if he would like to leave earlier so we can first spend some time listening to the songs lingering from the night. The asking was only a formality, as I knew Fritz would jump at any opportunity to scamper with the Relations, and I knew the new snow would have him especially excited. He's so predictable! Sure enough, we are off in short order and I hop out of the vehicle about three miles before camp, right around where Jim found the Cougar scat on the road a few weeks earlier. I am on the southwestern edge of a bog that runs north about a mile and a half and embraces the south shore of our lake. The bog is about half as wide as it is long, with a sister bog just as large extending south. The combination of lake and bogs presents quite a formidable wetland barrier to east/west travel--an awareness I often use to help me better become the relations. As I leave the road behind and walk through the grove of Tamaracks at the edge of the bog, my wool shirt turns to fur and my boots to padded paws. Where the trees open to bog I pause to listen and sample the air. I am hungry and need to get to the rest of my hunting territory--a strong urge that naturally keens my senses to find the shortest and safest route across the bog. There, on the east side…a peninsula of forested land jutting out into the bog… perfect!
 Using my power of envisionment to look out across the bog as though I were on the tip of the peninsula, I see another one slicing into the bog from the west. Perfect--the two peninsulas cut the distance across the bog in half! My heart quickens as I head due north to intercept the trail I am quite sure I will find and am already envisioning following between the two peninsulas. It isn't the trail worn deep in the moss and shaded by labrador tea that causes me to forget everything but the communion of the moment; it is the tracks of a very large Cat. I softly slip my feet into the imprints of hers and together we make our way to the peninsula (Sometimes I'm literally stepping in her track; most of the time I'm up on one side of the trailer the other, paralleling her, either to gain perspective or to preserve the track). Every step is deliberate, as every step gives new perspective, new reason and opportunity to survey the surroundings. This is for both potential danger and food, as well as to gain site memory for future reference. More than a snapshot, this memory is like a moving picture, complete with sound, smell, and feeling. Being so exposed, and with feet in icy water, is not a Cat’s favorite way to be, so we move extra slowly and cautiously. She and I were one, we move as one, we think and feel as one. Our only separation is a few hours of time--an insignificant matter in the greater scheme of things.
 She/we slow down even more when reaching high ground, where the forest edge has a solid canopy of hemlock and cedar and an understory of young firs growing in dense clumps. This provides a great corridor for animals moving north and south along the bog edge, and we are curious to know who has come by recently. Fox, Coyote, Deer, Snowshoe Hare. Satisfied, we squat to take a pee and then head inland. I linger a moment to smell the pee, which is the same light color and of the same very mild urine essence as the squat markings by the kill site. Definitely not an adult male! Anyone who has caught whiff of a male Housecat’s litter box knows what a male Wildcat’s urine smells like, so when you come across that scent in the woods, follow your nose and you’ll likely find a marking post. As I reflect on how this unfolding chapter fits into the whole story, my padded paws turn back into booted feet and my golden fur transforms to a forest-green shirt. I zigzag up a slow rise through red pines, and then through maples on level upland, several times crossing the Cat’s tracks. I have a sense for where she was going, not in terms of a particular trail or destination, but more like a feeling of getting warmer or colder as I turn this way and that. The feeling is continually refined by the song of my surroundings: the tell-tale maneuverings of an overhead raven, the calls of disturbed red squirrels off in the distance, the patch of disturbed ground on the hillside ahead, a faint scent. And so much more factors in that does not register consciously, yet it is being processed and translated into the direction of my next step, which way I turn my ear, and every other thought, feeling and movement in which I am engaged. She and I are responding to different input at a different time, and yet we keep moving in the same general direction. We are related; time is related; all movement is one movement. In a small open area in the pines I come upon a scrape of hers that is as long as I am tall and almost as wide. Not wanting to disturb the sign, I listen to its voice and realize it holds no scat, and that perhaps it is a pee squat, marked much more boldly than the last squat because here she is not near as distracted--no, not distracted, but taken up--by the boisterous chorus of songs from her many relations at her squat by bog’s edge. Here with open forest and no understory beneath the pines, there’s easy visibility in all directions, with little variation in topography or ground cover.
 This sparseness attracts few animals, which the scant sign attested to. And yet, why such a big scrape for only a urination—especially with such weak-smelling pee? Is this perhaps an immature male squatting because he does not yet have the hormonal drive to lift his leg and spray, and yet, he feels frisky enough to do an aggressive scrape? Or is this a female who just got carried away? One factor might be that this Cat was relaxed and confident when traveling through these pines. Her long, determined stride showed no confusion or hesitation, nor was there caution or fear. She was alert, for sure, but not on guard or particularly inquisitive. The voice I hear from every singer--the locale, the track, the pine forest, the spirit of Cat--all sing clearly of a leisurely stroll. Her two bootlength stride is impressive--obviously a big Cat! I’ve never seen a Bobcat stride approach that; usually they are around one bootlength. And her straddle is consistent handlength wide, which speaks her comfort and confidence. (I do not carry a measuring device, which distances me from the relationship and gives it a clinical edge. A ruler, which reminds me of my college days as a Wildlife major, pulls me back into that rational headset.
 The Native way of body measuring has the reverse effect: it helps to personalize the experience by involving me directly. And yet, and respect of the fact that you are not physically present while I tell this story, I will tell you that my bootlength is twelve inches and a little over half that is the length of my hand.) With the sparse vegetation and barely packing snow of the pine forest, conditions are quite good for track registration. The imprints are typical Cat; a round front foot with the inner toe set more forward than the outer, with the pullout pattern (the track of the paw been lifted through the snow) being wide and round. I measure the width of just the firm imprint of the pads and not the entire foot, at three fingers (2 ½ in.). As with many long-bodied animals, the front and back feet do not direct register (one foot stepping precisely in the print of the other). The back footprint falls just behind the front, usually with a slight overlap. And, and as is common with Cougars, her rear tracks register slightly duckfooted. “Could this be a Lynx?” I wonder. They have large paws for their size, more like a Cougar’s. However, a Lynx overall is a small Cat in comparison with a Cougar and has a correspondingly short stride, similar to that of a Bobcat . And Lynx is very rare in this neck of the Northwoods; I have yet to see sign of one. Here Cougar and I part, with her continuing northeast and me heading due north to join with Fritz and the Seekers at their camp on the south shore of the lake. I do not share anything about my hike in, as it would feel akin to talking with a group about a night with my lover. Instead I attune to the song of her track and continue with her through the new-growth aspen and over the pockmarked glacial landscape. At the same time I am present with the Seekers, guiding them in the awakening of their innate sensory and intuitive abilities, so they too can hear the Song of the Cougar. Epilogue I never experienced writer’s block to any degree until I attempted to record this story. It is my personal journey--too intimate, too sacred, to tell. And yet I knew this story was not just about me. Or just for me. I am a storyteller, born to give voice to the timeless metaphors that have guided humankind since we first gathered around a fire. This story is no more mine than it was the first person’s who walked in the shadow of a big Cat. That person was his story, and the greatest gift to one’s people is the gift of self. So that night around the fire, he likely gifted his story to his clan, and the story became them--they too were honored to walk in the shadow of the Cat. I just woke up sobbing: my dreamself had trapped me in a corner of my sleep and told me in no uncertain terms that the longer I put off finishing this story--this truth I have to tell--the more misery I am going to experience and the more my behaviors will tilt out of balance. Right now I am taping the final chapter.
 As I finish the last sentence, I hear a vehicle pull up the driveway. Looking out the window, I see a group gathering around the opened back hatch. The driver, a young man fresh out of the city, just returned from checking his trap line. Yearning to rebecome his Native self, he recently took a trapping class, bought a license, and set up a trap line with his brand new steel-jaw traps. The commotion around the vehicle tells me this is the day I have been waiting for. I go out to touch my eyes upon the still form of a great male Bobcat. With the last gasp of his lingering spirit, he speaks these words: "I trod the same trails; I screamed the same lament in the night, as cousin Cougar. Tell our story." As though I had never known--and would never be allowed to forget--the reason for story is branded on my soul.
 by Tamarack Song:  http://www.tamaracksong.org/index.html
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